France's new prime minister vows to defend farmers and restore authority in schools

PARIS (AP) — France's new Prime Minister Gabriel Attal vowed Tuesday to boost employment, restore authority in the country's schools and support workers including farmers who have been protesting for days over their eroding incomes.

Three weeks after he was appointed by President Emmanuel Macron as France’s youngest-ever and first openly gay prime minister, Attal sought to meet people's top concerns in a lively policy address to French lawmakers filled with announcements and promises. The speech alternatively drew applause from his supporters and noisy boos from the opposition benches.

“My priority is to boost employment,” he told the National Assembly, France's lower house of parliament. Attal vowed to take action so that “work pays more” than “inactivity.”

“It's nonsense that the unemployment rate remains at around 7% at a time when so many sectors are looking to hire throughout the country,” he said.

Attal, 34, said his government will take measures to encourage employers to better pay workers who earn the minimum salary. He promised tax cuts on middle-class households.

He also announced that jobless people who get a state-sponsored “solidarity income” will all be required to spend 15 hours per week in “activities” like job training or an internship, starting from next year.

“Nobody is asking for the right to be lazy in our country,” he said.

Attal expressed support for angry farmers, promising emergency cash aid and controls on imported food, in hopes that the moves will cool a protest movement that has seen tractors shut down highways across France and inspired similar actions around Europe.

The prime minister, who was previously education minister, made a point of detailing measures to restore authority at school.

He confirmed a plan to experiment with uniforms in some public schools as part of efforts to move the focus away from clothes and reduce school bullying and vowed to diminish the time children spend on screens.

He also announced the creation of a new "sentence of community service” for children under 16 who need to be sanctioned. “We need to get back to a clear principle: You break, you fix. You make it dirty, you clean. You defy authority, you learn to respect it,” he said.

Another measure for children who disobey rules is to offer parents to send them to a boarding school, with state financial and other support, he said.

Attal promised to “de-bureaucratize France” — or diminish the volume of red tape — to respond to criticism of farmers, employers and local officials about excessive bureaucracy.

To support the country's struggling health care system, he said he will appoint a special envoy to “go abroad to find doctors who would be willing to come to France.” He also said his government will find a system to make patients pay if they take a medical appointment and don’t attend it, a measure much expected by doctors.

Urging the state to be “exemplary,” he asked his administration to experiment with a four-day week, in which employees who want to arrive earlier in the morning and leave later in the evening can get one additional day off every week, while working the same amount of time as others.

He also asked for working hours of cleaning people in administration offices to be scheduled at day time, not at night.

“To be French in 2024 is to live in a country” fighting for “stability, justice and peace,” he concluded.

“To be French in 2024 means being able to be prime minister while being openly gay” in a country that, 10 years ago, was divided over same-sex marriage, Attal added in reference to months of nationwide protests and wrenching debate before the law was adopted. “I see it as showing our country is moving forward.”